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Broadcasters Challenge FCC’s Proposed Online Public/Political File Rules on Multiple Fronts


As I discussed last month, the FCC has adopted rules requiring television stations to replace their existing locally-maintained public inspection files with digital files to be placed online on an FCC-hosted website, including stations’ detailed political records. The majority of television stations will not be required to begin posting their political file documents online until July 1, 2014, but stations in the top-50 markets that are affiliated with ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox will be required to comply once the new regulations go into effect, assuming that the rules survive challenges made by TV broadcasters.

Broadcasters have launched a three-pronged attack against the FCC’s proposed new regulations with a series of recent filings with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the FCC. The core thrust of the broadcasters’ challenges are focused on the requirement that TV stations disclose online very sensitive rate information about political advertising. Broadcasters have assailed the proposed rules for dramatically increasing regulatory burdens on TV stations while at the same time failing to require similar online disclosures by cable TV systems or other competitors to broadcast television.

The first shot fired after the FCC adopted the new regulations was by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) in a Petition for Review filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. In its Petition, the NAB is asking the Court to vacate the FCC’s action “on the grounds that it is arbitrary, capricious, in excess of the Commission’s statutory authority, inconsistent with the First Amendment, and otherwise not in accordance with law.” An NAB spokesman summed it up by charging the FCC with “forcing broadcasters to be the only medium to disclose on the Internet our political rates” and jeopardizing “the competitive standing of stations.”

A number of broadcast groups opened up a second front against the FCC’s new rules earlier this week, with filings asking the OMB to take a hard look at the FCC’s proposed regulations under the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995 (PRA), and to invalidate the rules due to the FCC’s failure to comply with the PRA. On behalf of 46 State Broadcasters Associations, Dick Zaragoza and I filed comments in the proceeding arguing that the FCC violated the PRA by, among other things, failing to analyze the large burdens the proposed new regulations will have on television stations in general, and on small television station businesses in particular. We also advanced the argument of the NAB and others that the new rules are unnecessarily and impermissibly duplicative of the records already required to be maintained online by the Federal Election Commission under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 1992.

In the third salvo, a coalition of broadcast groups calling themselves the “Television Station Group” is fighting the adoption of the rules at the FCC. This group filed a Petition for Reconsideration with the FCC asking the Commission to modify the proposed rules due to concerns with the requirement that stations reveal online precisely how much they charge for political advertising. The law requires that broadcasters charge their lowest unit rate for political ads during a pre-election window, and the Television Station Group told the FCC that if those rates are widely and easily accessible on an FCC-hosted website (and not just to candidates), commercial advertisers may make requests for that same low rate. The unintended effect could be to force broadcasters to homogenize their rates so that every ad costs the same, eviscerating the current cost advantage to candidates of being charged only the “lowest unit rate”. In short, the Television Station Group argues that the disclosure of price information is anti-competitive and disrupts the commercial advertising marketplace because “stations’ political ad rates, by law, must be based on commercial advertising rates.”

Although the new rules are under fire on a number of fronts, it remains to be seen if broadcasters will be able to successfully block the FCC’s efforts. Before the FCC’s regulations can go into effect, at a minimum, they will have to be approved by OMB through the PRA process which, in this case, will not likely be the usual perfunctory rubber stamp the FCC often receives from OMB. Also, Court of Appeals challenges to the rules are not due until July 30, 2012, and, at some point, parties are likely to ask both the FCC and the courts to hold the effective dates of the rules in abeyance until the broadcasters’ multiple challenges can be heard. In other words, the battle over the FCC’s proposed online public/political file rules is far from over.